Regional emergency planning group improves mobility




Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, so the Southwest Kansas Regional Emergency Planning Council continually seeks ways to better improve mobility, response, communication and training as a means of being better prepared to respond.

The regional organization consists of 18 southwest Kansas counties, and of representatives from fire agencies, emergency medical services, emergency management, health departments, hospitals, dispatchers, sheriffs' and police associations and volunteer organizations.

Don Button, Grant County Emergency Management coordinator and chairperson of the regional council, said the regional focus has allowed the council to plan projects that benefit all of the counties.

"We're trying to get all the different types of entities in the counties to say, 'What are our needs as a region,' because we don't get near the money as some of the regions do, so we try to develop projects that will benefit, not just one or two communities, but the whole region," Button said. "When we first started doing this, we were trying to develop projects that, if the monies went away, our region would still be better off in terms of emergency management preparedness."

State and federal funding is provided to the region from the Department of Homeland Security.

"The committee got formed in December of 2005. That's when the feds and the states decided, instead of giving the monies directly to the counties, they wanted to do it as a region," Button said.

Since its formation, the council has implemented or developed projects aimed at improving responsiveness, while keeping the big picture in mind.

For instance, the council transformed an old school bus into an emergency response vehicle. The Southwest Emergency Response Vehicle, which can be used in a variety of situations and has a capacity of 65 passengers, is equipped with four sets of bunk beds, a couch, chairs, tables and is also equipped to secure wheelchairs into place. It also is equipped for hanging IVs.

"It can be used for sleeping quarters if need be, it can be used for rehab, it can be used for a point of distribution for the health department ... When we built it, we didn't build it for just one thing. It's multi-use," Button said.

He said the bus has already been used in several counties for a number of reasons.

"We took it to Scott City when they got their new hospital and we used it to move patients from the old hospital to the new hospital and we did the total move in one hour," Button said.

It was also used to move residents of Hugoton from their former senior care facility to their new facility, to evacuate seniors during the 2011 wild fires in Haskell County and as a rehab center for firefighters in Grant County.

"We had a big house fire here and I was using it as a rehab center for our firefighters, because it happened around the 22nd of December, when it was 19 degrees and the wind was blowing 20 mph," he said. "I fired it up and turned the heat on an they were able to come in and get rehabed."

The main benefit of the bus, Button said, is that in extreme emergencies involving multiple casualties, ambulances are freed up to transport more critically injured patients.

The council has also developed projects aimed at improving communication, such as the 800 radio system, which Button said allows emergency responders to communicate by radio all over the state.

"The nice thing with the 800 system is we can talk statewide. With the 800 system, we put radios in all our ambulances, hospitals, law enforcement vehicles, fire trucks — for first responders. So that way if we get called to mutual aid and have to go to Garden City or we have to go to Greeley or Wichita County, we can still talk to each other," Button said, adding that local two-way radio systems are not equipped for speaking long distances and cell coverage in some areas isn't reliable.

In addition to ongoing disaster preparedness training, Button said that the council has also developed two task forces trained specifically for search and rescue operations in the region.

Other projects that have been developed or implemented by the council are designed to assist with everything from severe weather notifications to accounting for people at a disaster site.

The council is currently planning to obtain a miniature robot that will be stationed in Dodge City.

"We had a request for a miniature robot that could be used for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosives so that personnel (don't) have to go into the scene," Button said.

The Southwest Kansas Regional Emergency Planning Council, funded by state and federal emergency planning authorities under the Department of Homeland Security, consists of 18 counties in southwest Kansas; Clark, Finney, Ford, Grant, Gray, Greeley, Hamilton, Haskell, Hodgeman, Kearny, Lane, Meade, Morton, Seward, Scott, Stanton, Stevens and Wichita.

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